Training your brain to love your flaws: Using cognitive dissonance to your advantage

If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, the term “cognitive dissonance” might sound familiar. It is the discomfort an individual feels when they believe two concepts, values, or thoughts that directly contradict one another. This discomfort can also be felt if an individual does something that contradicts their own values. For example, if Suzy thinks she is a good person but she made fun of someone, then she might feel some sort of personal mental discomfort, because her action contradicted her belief about herself.

To cope with this sense of discomfort, many of us might try to rationalize our actions so as not to be out of line with how we think of ourselves. For example, Suzy might say that the person she was making fun of was being mean to her earlier, and therefore he “deserved it.” In thinking this way, Suzy might feel better about herself, despite having made fun of him.

It’s really a very interesting concept, if you think about it. Our brain tries to self-correct our own way of thinking so we can get back “in line” with our beliefs if we ever “fall out” of line.

Okay, psychology review/lesson over. Now, how can we use this to our advantage?

Whether you have low self-esteem in general or there’s just one, two, (or a handful) of things you don’t like about yourself, you might have the conscious or unconscious thought: “I really hate my ____.” Perhaps you even think this thought every time you see this feature on yourself, so the message is pretty engrained in your brain. The good news is, we have power to change our thoughts using thought stopping techniques, and thanks to cognitive dissonance, we have the power to change how we feel about things.

Here’s how: Let’s say Suzy has freckles and she hates them. Every day she looks in the mirror and thinks “I really hate my freckles.” One day Suzy wakes up an decides that she doesn’t want to hate her freckles anymore, so she employs some thought stopping techniques—anytime she has a negative thought about her freckles, she says “STOP” out loud, and instead, replaces that thought with a new one: “I really love my freckles.” She does this every day until she no longer has negative thoughts about her freckles, and when she sees them, she continues to think “I really love my freckles.” Eventually, the new thought is the one “burned” in her brain, and the old one is no more.

Right now you might be thinking, “okay, but where does cognitive dissonance come into play?” When Suzy first started the thought stopping and introducing the new thought, her brain had two conflicting messages: “I hate my freckles” and “I really love my freckles.” Because of cognitive dissonance, Suzy’s brain is really scrambling, because it can’t possibly believe the two contradictory thoughts at the same time. When Suzy continues to repeat the message “I really love my freckles” over and over again, her brain has to change its wiring to cope with the uncomfortable feelings it experiences by having the two contradictory thoughts. To put itself back “in line” with the new thoughts it is being bombarded with (“I really love my freckles”), Suzy’s brain starts to have more positive feelings about her freckles.

Perhaps the long explanation sounds confusing and makes the matter more complicated, but the basic message is this: If we introduce a new, positive message in our brain that contradicts an old, negative message we have, with enough repetition our brain will begin to believe the new message.

Be patient with yourself in trying this. Remember that repetition of the new and positive message is key. Eventually your brain will start to adjust to—and accept—the new message, while pushing the old one out. This is because the two conflicting messages can’t both be accepted by your brain at the same time, and your brain will be forced to start agreeing with the message you are repeating every day.

Happy brain rewiring!

 

By: Lauren Buetikofer, LPC

The 1-2-3’s (and “4”) of Thought Stopping: How to Stop Your Negative Thoughts from Snowballing

If you’re like most people, you probably find yourself on the occasional “hamster wheel” of negative or unhelpful thoughts; that is, the thoughts just keep going around and around and around and around until you’re so dizzy and exhausted that you just about fall down from thinking about it. Even worse: your thoughts snowball. It start off as a small, somewhat negative or unhelpful passing thought, but then it gets a little bigger, occupies a little bit more of your mental energy and time, and continues to grow until it’s all consuming, self-defeating, and downright exhausting.

Many of my clients relay to me this all-too-common cycle of thinking and how it almost inevitably ends in a panic attack, a sleepless night, or an unproductive day filled with nothing but worry. When I hear this, my first line of defense is always Thought Stopping.

As you can probably gather from the name, the act of Thought Stopping is exactly that: putting a stop to all those unhelpful, negative thoughts. As with anything, it’s easier said than done, but with enough practice and consistently applied application, you’ll be well on your way to getting off your own hamster wheel.

Step One: Catch the negative thought. Okay, this seems really obvious, but it needs to be said. Throughout a day we all have thousands of thoughts, whether we are aware of them or not. No, I’m not about to go off on a long and drawn out Freudian “unconscious thought” tangent, but the statement is worth exploring. How long into your negative thought cycle are you until you realize you’re back on the hamster wheel? For some people, this step is easy. If it is, high-five to you and move onto the next step.

 If it isn’t, try keeping a simple “thought log.” You can practice this in five-minute increments, or you can track your thoughts throughout the day. For instance, take 5 minutes out of your day to write down every thought you have in a time span of five minutes. It can be as simple as “I’m hungry” or “I’m thinking about this activity” to as deep and complex as “I’m not really sure what I’m doing with my life.” This five-minute kick-starter activity will help you to become more aware of the thoughts you have, and will hopefully help you to identify your negative thoughts as they crop up.

To track your thoughts throughout the day, keep a sheet of paper or a little notebook with you, and jot notes on your thoughts anytime you’re aware of any thoughts you have. Again, they can either be profound or simple. This act of acknowledging your thoughts and taking note of them will bring awareness to the thoughts you have throughout the day, and will increase your likelihood of catching your negative thoughts before they snowball.

Step Two: Stop the negative thought. I must be joking, right? Seriously though, we need to cut that sucker off until it snowballs into something unmanageable, right? There’s a number of ways to go about cutting off your thoughts in their tracks. Whenever I teach this to my client, I always make the “chopping” gesture with my hands (you know the one- left hand flat, palm up, and parallel to the floor, right hand perpendicular to the left and comes down the middle of the left in a sort of “chopping” fashion), and I’ve done this so much so that now any time I think of thought stopping I automatically think of that gesture. For me, I might either think of that gesture or actually do the gesture if I wanted to stop a negative thought. When I teach this method to kids, I tell them to think of a huge red stop sign- one so big that they can’t see anything else. Some people like to say “STOP” out loud or in their head… anything to distract your mind from continuing down the path of your negative thought.

Step Three: Challenge the negative thought. In most cases—not all, but most—our negative thoughts are irrational, unhelpful, and biased toward one side of the argument. In this third step I challenge my clients to think of the evidence that doesn’t support their negative thought. For example, if a client tells me they feel like they don’t have a support system, I’ll ask them to challenge that thought and find that evidence that the thought isn’t true. When they think about it, they might say, “Well, I do have my one friend who says she's always there if I need her, but I’ve never actually tried leaning on her for support when I need it.” If they continue thinking on the matter, they might also add something to the effect of “my co-workers are always asking how I’m doing, but I never actually open up to them.” Okay, good. Now we’re getting somewhere. In most cases, there’s some counter-evidence to our irrational, negative thoughts, and we just need to dig a little deeper to find it. Keep pulling up evidence that negates your negative thought until you don’t feel its effects anymore. Once we acknowledge the counter-evidence and “let it marinade,” then suddenly our original, negative thoughts don’t have much ground to stand on.

Step Four: Change the thought and move on. This is the point that you jump off your hamster wheel. In step three, we’ve put the negative thought to rest by knocking down some of its validity. At this point, it’s time to move on. Think of something else unrelated. Think of something happier, more helpful.

If the thought crops up again, repeat the steps until it’s laid to rest yet again. Thought stopping isn’t always perfect, and it certainly isn’t a “once-and-done” sort of deal. It takes practice and persistence. The more you do it, the more likely you are to find it to be a successful tool to add to your box of coping mechanisms. Give it a few weeks and see if it’s a good tool for you. Good luck!

If you have questions about thought stopping, application of this skill in your life, or to schedule an appointment to explore more useful coping mechanisms to help you manage, please don’t hesitate to contact me at lauren@lbcounseling.com

 

Written by: Lauren Buetikofer, MA, LPC

How Does The Holiday Season Impact Your Emotions?

The holiday season can be a time where one experiences both positive and negative emotions. These emotions can range from excitement and happiness because it is a time of being with your friends and family and celebrating family traditions. On the other hand, some individuals during this time of year may experience depression, anxiety and elevated levels stress with the increased events, organizing and getting things prepared for the holidays. Additionally, this time of the year may be challenging for individuals and families that have lost a loved one. Although the holiday season can impact your emotions and increase stress, there are a few suggestions that you can use to gain balance during the holidays.

Identify your limitations and reach out for help. If you are starting to feel overwhelmed and exhausted you may need to take a break. I know it can be difficult to take some time to relax when you have a never ending list of things you "should" or "could" be doing. Listen to your body, if you are starting to feel exhausted take a some time to read a book, exercise or do something you enjoy and then return to your to-do list. You will be able to be more productive once you have taken time to relax your body. Don't be ashamed to ask your friends and family for help if you need it. If you are hosting a dinner or event ask your guests to bring a dish. This will help you feel less overwhelmed with things you need to do.

Most importantly, allow yourself to feel various emotions during this time of year. If you are grieving, allow yourself to feel sadness or anger. Try your best to find emotional balance and don't let your negative emotions prevent you from experiencing the joy the holiday season brings. If you feel like you are struggling with moving past the negative emotions you are experiencing, seek support from family members, friends, or a counselor that can teach you coping skills.